Temping fate.

AuthorWalters, Ida L.
PositionContingent workers - Economics

The myth of a contingent work force masks a hidden agenda.

ARE WE BECOMING A NATION OF temps? Of "disposable" and "throwaway" workers? That's the message in a glut of media stories that have appeared during the last 18 months or so. In one overheated account after another, we're told that employers are cutting back on permanent staff, relying instead on "contingent" workers who receive lower pay, few if any benefits, and no job security.

It's the numbers that hook you. The most aggressive and most often quoted numbers are from "The Temping of America," a six-page article that appeared in the March 29, 1993, issue of Time. The piece claims that contingent workers account for a third of all workers, up from a quarter in 1988, and that "their ranks are growing so quickly they're expected to outnumber permanent full-time workers by the end of the decade." Time says temporary-help firms send out 1.5 million workers daily, up 250 percent since 1982, while "another 34 million start their day as other types of contingent workers." According to Time, the list of postmodern peons includes part-timers, free-lancers, short-timers, contractors, leased employees, per-diem workers, independents, consultants, and supplementals.

We read of a "fragile and frightening new order," an "economy too addicted to treating workers like interchangeable, disposable grunts," and "some profound betrayal of the American dynamic." We are informed that "Communism deconstructed itself |and~ Capitalism has done something of the same to its work force." Time wants you to make no mistake about it: "This 'disposable' work force is the most important trend in business today."

It isn't. Although wrenching change is transforming the American workplace and the human toll is enormous, the contingent work force is a myth. And, unlike myths whose origins are shrouded in the mists of antiquity and whose meanings are difficult to interpret, this one was invented in a particular time and place, to advance the political agenda of unions.

IN HIS 1989 BOOK, THE CONTINGENT Economy, Richard Belous, chief economist at the union-backed National Planning Association, cobbles together four categories of workers that he labels "contingent": part-time, self-employed, business services, and temporary. Contingent workers, according to Belous, lack long-term "attachment" to their employers. Unattached workers are likely to withhold their loyalty and best effort (there goes quality, productivity, and competitiveness), and employers are likely to deny contingent workers a living wage, decent benefits, training, and respect (there goes the American dream). Based on this work-force double whammy, Belous maintains that a rapidly growing army of contingent workers is bad for business, bad for contingent workers, and bad for permanent workers who could be replaced by them.

Most important, however, it's bad for unions. Since the workers in the four categories are normally excluded from collective bargaining, Belous sees "a more difficult environment for unions" as a major "cost" of contingent (read: flexible) work arrangements.


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